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People Archive Photo
© Jeff Kida

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Mule Master
They're not as famous as the panoramas, but the mules at the Canyon are known around the world, and the man in charge is Casey Murph.

By Leah Duran

Long before daylight splashes its morning glow on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, livery manager Casey Murph heads to the barn to saddle up as many as 40 mules that will carry tourists down the Canyon's steep, winding switchbacks.

"A lot of folks think it'll be like going on a bus tour and looking out the window, but it's a lot more hands-on," says Murph, who gives orientations daily to riders before they embark on the Bright Angel Trail. "You can't just sit there; you have to ride."

Murph, who grew up on a cattle ranch a few miles east of Winslow, has been riding horses and handling livestock since he was a young boy. "I was kind of just born into the cowboy thing," Murph says.

His late grandfather, Charlie Jennings, worked with mules at the Grand Canyon as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression of the early 1930s.

"I'd always known about the mules here because of the stories I'd heard [from my grandfather] as a kid," Murph says.

In November 1989, the day after he turned 21, Murph asked for a similar job at the Grand Canyon. He was hired to oversee pack mules, and later served as a trail guide. Three years ago, he moved into his current position as livery manager for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates hospitality facilities in national parks across the country.

While some might consider the Grand Canyon a secluded place, Murph found it much more crowded than his childhood ranch, where the nearest neighbors were exactly 7 miles from the end of the driveway.

"I wasn't used to living in towns this big," he says. "I know that seems strange to some people, but I was used to being in real remote places before I came here. It took me awhile to get used to having neighbors."

Although Murph now calls the Grand Canyon home, on his days off, he still returns to his ranch, where he took over the family business.

"There's always a lot of roping and branding to do, and that's relaxing," he says.

Murph's other pastime is camping, though not in the Canyon. "Normally, when I go camping, I'll go somewhere else, just because I live here and it's familiar to me," he says. His favorite retreat is near the Tonto Basin.

Most of Murph's time is spent managing the 170 mules that carry supplies and people back and forth from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon. His duties include training mules, ensuring their health, and evaluating their behavior to see which animals work well with people.

"I know all my mules really well," he says. "They do have their own personalities. Some are playful, some don't like people all that much … those are the pack mules."

When mules reach their limits of service, Murph searches for places where they can enjoy a peaceful retirement.

"Eventually, these mules get a bit too old to do work this hard, so I'll try to find good homes for them," he says. "I love my mules, and I really try to take care of them."

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